Review: Classical Uke by Paul Mansell

Most newcomers to the ukulele jam scene that’s popping up all over the world use their instruments to accompany themselves singing songs they already know. These strummers may eventually cross to the other side where the instrument becomes the focus of attention. Welcome to the the world of pluckers, also known as fingerstyle playing. As a first step, they may start by reading tablature, where each number indicates the fret to press on the corresponding string.

Classical guitarist and ukulele expert Paul Mansell’s “Classical Uke” contains twenty short pieces transcribed for the beginning ukulele plucker. Easy to sight read and follow, these pieces whet the appetite of any ukulele enthusiast.

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Guitarists and their luthiers

Classical guitarists and their luthiers develop relationships that pianists almost never have with their piano builders. Dutch guitarist Robert Bekkers, who plays a Hihorst concert guitar from Amsterdam, meets American luthier John Decker in Maui and tries his handmade guitars.

A luthier is someone who builds guitars, i.e. a guitar maker or guitar builder. A lute player is someone who plays lutes.

Classical guitarists are very different from pianists in that they are more likely to know their instrument makers than not. I may be biased because of my duo partnership with a classical guitarist who is curious to try new guitars of luthiers he meets.

The builder of his Hilhorst guitar makes only 6 guitars a year, two at a time. Each time he finishes a pair, he invites Robert Bekkers to visit him in his workshop in Amsterdam. Each time, Robert hopes that he has not built a better guitar than the one he bought in 2005, to be assured that he made a good investment. At the same time, he is honoured that he can try out the newborns before they get sent to their final destinations.

Unlike pianos, guitars take less time to build. They are often the result of one person’s dedication —- handmade in a workshop and not manufactured in a factory. The ownership is clear: the luthier designs and creates his own unique product. He usually has a philosophy and approach to making his guitars. Robert’s Amsterdam-based luthier Jeroen Hilhorst, for instance, builds concert guitars, i.e. for the concert stage. Other luthiers follow the tradition that has passed down from father to son, keeping the shape, size, feel, and sound as close to the original concept of a guitar as possible.

Recently I discovered the Guitar Master Works website of Maui-based luthier John Decker. I had the pleasure of meeting him at a Rotary Club of Maui Thursday luncheon and quickly struck up a conversation about guitar building and book publishing. Dr John A. Decker, Jr was not born a guitar builder but became one after working in different fields. The story of how he decided to build guitars is a fascinating one.

We followed John to his workshop one Wednesday afternoon after an interesting conversation over an enjoyable lunch in Cafe O’Lei in Wailuku. John’s philosophy to building graphite guitars was influenced by the need to have an instrument that could withstand changing and harsh outdoor conditions. [Readers can also take a virtual tour of John’s workshop.]

Luthier John Decker with Dutch guitarist Robert Bekkers in Maui
Luthier John Decker with Dutch guitarist Robert Bekkers in Maui

As a physicist, Dr Decker addressed the challenges of building a guitar that could last in humid, tropical climates. Many characteristics of the guitar are results of compromises: weight vs the thickness of the soundboard, stiffness of the neck, kind of wood used, etc. As an entrepreneur, Decker experimented with different designs and construction. The guitars on display in his office were all different, as Robert found out in the ensuing hour.

Four days after his visit, Robert Bekkers reflects. “These handmade guitars of John Decker I tried recently have a very even sound — no unwanted resonances or dominant strings. Because of the sandwiched soundboard, there’s no bracing. Apparently there’s less impact of the tropical climate on the wood. The inlays are remarkable. Beautiful local woods (like koa) used — and that one which the neck made of hardwood felt as thin as paper. Very comfortable. The cover on the guitar head is something I’ve never seen before — a mermaid-like figure that’s iconic of the Hawaiian islands.”

Robert Bekkers, classical guitarist

Professional photos of Robert Bekkers, classical guitarist, by Rodney Waters in Houston, Texas

The following photos of Dutch guitarist Robert Bekkers were taken by Rodney Waters who was on duty both as photographer and accompanist at the private concert we gave in Houston on 6th November 2010. Thank you, Rodney for the memories.

Robert Bekkers, classical guitarist
1. Robert Bekkers, classical guitarist Photo credit: Rodney Waters

The photos are available by higher resolution — for press purposes.
All photos were taken live in concert in a beautiful home in Houston, Texas.

Robert Bekkers, classical guitarist
3. Robert Bekkers, classical guitarist Photo credit: Rodney Waters
5. Robert Bekkers, classical guitarist
5. Robert Bekkers, classical guitarist Photo credit: Rodney Waters

The following picture was taken while waiting for pianist Anne Ku to finish the introductions.

7. Robert Bekkers, classical guitarist
7. Robert Bekkers, classical guitarist Photo credit: Rodney Waters